Falcons lose first round pick Jerry for the season

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is reporting that defensive tackle Peria Jerry, who was the Falcons first round pick in April, will miss the rest of the season after suffering a knee injury in a win over the Panthers on Sunday.

This might not sound like a significant loss given that Jerry was a rookie and defensive tackles are rarely in the limelight, but this is a blow to the Falcons’ defensive line. Jerry was quickly emerging as a solid interior pass-rusher and offered a nice complement to John Abraham and Jonathan Babineaux on Atlanta’s D-line.

The Falcons rotate their defensive linemen on game days, so Trey Lewis, Thomas Johnson and Vance Walker will all see playing time at the tackle position next to Babineaux. Unfortunately, none of the three provide the pass rush that Jerry does, although maybe the big-bodied Lewis (who was impressive as a rookie in 2007 before a knee injury sidelined him for the entire ’08 season) can help the Falcons fix a leaky run-defense that is allowing 5.1 YPC.

This is a bad time for the Falcons to lose a pass rusher with a trip to New England and a pissed-off Patriots team on the docket.

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White seeking a new contract – Abraham too?

The Atlanta Falcons were one of the best stories in the NFL last year, as they rose from the depths of football hell and became a playoff team thanks to the roster construction of new GM Thomas Dimitroff, the guidance of new head coach Mike Smith, and the outstanding play of guys like Matt Ryan, Roddy White, Michael Turner and John Abraham.

But Dimitroff’s job is far from over and now he has the unenviable task of trying to make some of the current players financially happy. The first being White, who enters the final year of his rookie contract, and the other is Abraham, who some believe is searching for a new deal himself.

Dimitroff’s first priority should be White, who one would assume is seeking Greg Jennings-type money. The productive Packers’ wideout recently signed a three-year extension worth $27 million in base salary, as well as $16 million in guaranteed money. White is certainly worth that type of loot, especially considering he has emerged as one of the better receivers in the game and is clearly the Falcons’ best young playmaker.

Chances are, Atlanta will re-sign White before the season starts. There’s no reason to play hardball with their best receiver, especially considering how productive he has been over the last three seasons. With Michael Vick’s salary completely coming off the books after the 2009 season, the Falcons should have more than enough money to throw at White.

Abraham, however, could be a different story. When he was acquired via a trade from the Jets in 2006, he wound up signing a six-year, $45 million contract. The deal also included a $12.5 million signing bonus, but now NFL Network’s Steve Wyche is hearing “rumblings” that Abraham is seeking a new contract and while he won’t command Albert Haynesworth-type money, he might ask for what Jared Allen is making ($73.26 million over six years).

Granted, this is just a rumor and no other media outlet has confirmed Wyche’s report. But if Abraham does want a new deal, he might not have much leverage considered he’s 31 and is already set to make $5 million in 2009. He can be a one-man wrecking crew at times and as he went, so did the Falcons’ defense last year. But he seemingly is already being paid what he’s worth, so it’ll be interesting to see how the situation plays out.

NFL Divisional Round Preview

Before I get to my Divisional Round Preview, I’d like to send all of the losers from Wild Card Weekend off the only way I know how: By jabbing them one final time.

Atlanta Falcons: Hey Mike Smith and Mike Mularkey, his name is Jerious Norwood. He’s #32 and he’s one of the best playmakers on your offense. Might want to think about using him more the next time an opposing defense figures out how to shut down Michael Turner.

Indianapolis Colts: Seven trips to the postseason in the last seven years and you only manage one Super Bowl appearance with a three-time MVP at quarterback? Dear Barbara…

Miami Dolphins: Chad, I love you man and I love your story this season. But you can’t force passes down field into double coverage and expect good things. You should have kept doing what you did all season and what you did in your first possession of the game – hit the high-percentage passes and let your receivers get the yardage.

Minnesota Vikings: Did anyone else scratch their head when Brad Childress declined a holding penalty on third down early in the first quarter that would have moved the Eagles on the edge of field goal range? Instead, it brought up forth down and David Akers drilled a 43-yarder to give Philly a 3-0 lead. Childress basically said, “I’m not sure if my defense can hold the Eagles on 3rd and 14 – better give up the field goal so we don’t give up a potential touchdown instead.” You never give your opponents points in the playoffs. Never. Not even a field goal. Force them back, force them to make a play and force them to earn the points.

Myself: I went 1-3 with my Wild Card Predictions last week. Seriously? You went with the Colts in the playoffs? A rookie in Matt Ryan? The Vikings over everyone’s sleeper team in the Eagles? You’re a freaking bum. (Ironically I went 3-1 in a family football pool because I came to my senses and picked San Diego and Philly.)

Moving on…

Chris JohnsonBaltimore Ravens (11-5) at Tennessee Titans (13-3)
Saturday, January 10, 4:30PM ET
Opening Odds: Titans –3
Over/Under: 34.5
Game Outlook:
No disrespect to the Giants and Eagles or any other team playing this weekend, but this is easily the best matchup on the divisional playoff schedule. Did you see what Ed Reed and the Ravens did to Chad Pennington and the Dolphins last week? They held them to only 276 total yards, forced five turnovers and surrendered only 52 rushing yards. And although they used a lot of gadget formations throughout the season, it’s not like Miami’s offense was a dud this year. Granted, the Titans have the seventh best rushing attack in the league and rookie Chris Johnson brings an added dimension to the field, but Mike Heimerdinger has his hands full this week trying to come up with a game plan to move the ball against a Baltimore defense allowing just over 15 points a game this season. That said, it’ll be interesting to see how rookie quarterback Joe Flacco does against the seventh best defense in the NFL. Flacco passed with flying colors last week while playing mistake-free and running for the game-clinching score in the fourth quarter. But he’ll have to do a hell of a lot more than complete 9 of 23 passes for 135 yards against a Tennessee defense that could have DT Albert Haynesworth and DE Kyle Vanden Bosch back on their defensive line. If both players are in the lineup Saturday, Flacco is going to feel the heat up the middle and from the edges so he better get rid of the ball in a timely manner. Overall, this is the best defensive matchup of the year and this game will probably come down to who doesn’t turn the ball over.
X-Factor: Chris Johnson, Titans RB
The only time the Dolphins found success last week was when they used the Ravens’ aggressive style against them and slipped backs out in the flats. Pennington was able to hit Patrick Cobbs and company for seven to 10 yard gains and the Titans could employ the same method. Johnson is a homerun threat and more than capable of taking one to the house every play. Tennessee has to get the ball in this kid’s hands and force the Ravens to miss tackles in the open field, which they have the penchant for doing at times.
Prediction: Titans 16, Ravens 13.
I’m not going to bite on this potential upset. The Ravens’ defense is absolutely nasty, but Flacco worries me against a ball-hawking Tennessee secondary and I think the Titans are going to shut down Baltimore’s running game. This game comes down to which team makes fewer mistakes and I’ll take a veteran in Kerry Collins over the rook Flacco. (Word to the wise though, Kerry – stay away from Ed Reed’s side if you can.)


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Falcons outplayed and out coached in playoff loss to Cardinals

Michael TurnerIn my recap of the Cardinals’ 30-24 playoff win over the Falcons on Saturday, I wrote that Arizona played their best game of the season. If that’s the case, then the Falcons played their worst.

Atlanta turned the ball over three times (leading to 14 points), committed six penalties and had their game plan shoved directly up their asses. They clearly didn’t have a plan for what would happen if Michael Turner got shut down (which is exactly what happened) and it was absolutely inexcusable for the coaching staff to use Jerious Norwood as little as they did.

The three times Norwood touched the ball, he gained 12 yards on 2 carries and caught a huge 28 yard pass that kept the game alive in the fourth quarter. Every time he was on the field he did something positive, yet Mike Smith kept him tucked away on the sidelines like they were saving him for next week. It was ludicrous why Norwood wasn’t more involved in the offense, especially since Turner was so ineffective. I realize you have to feed the horse that got you there, but clearly the Cardinals were executing their game plan to stop Turner to perfection, so Atlanta should have adjusted.

This loss can’t solely be pinned on the coaches though, because the Falcon players were brutal, too. For the first time all season, Turner tiptoed around defenders instead of bowling them over, while Matt Ryan’s two interceptions were out of desperation in trying to force the action. Not that you can fully blame Turner and Ryan though, because Atlanta’s offensive line was absolutely abused by the Cardinals’ defensive front the entire game. They acted like a revolving door to the Falcons’ backfield and really, Ryan was the only reason the game was close in the end because he led the Falcons on a couple of nice drives.

Defensively, the Falcons didn’t play that bad. But where was John Abraham? I know he wasn’t 100%, but 90-year old Mike Gandy made him invisible. And how bad did veterans Keith Brooking and Lawyer Milloy (I know he wasn’t 100% either) look? Milloy took a horrible angle on a 71-yard Anquan Boldin touchdown in the second quarter, while Brooking dropped an easy interception and simply blew his assignment on the most crucial play of the game when Kurt Warner found tight end Stephen Spach for a 23-yard first down conversion that allowed Arizona to run out the remainder of the clock. The Falcons’ three top defensive players were non-existent and the team has a huge decision to make on whether or not Brooking and/or Milloy will be back next year, despite the outstanding leadership that they proved such a young defense with the entire season.

But regardless of the way the season ended, this was a great season for the Falcons. Nobody expected them to be playing in the playoffs at the start of the year and if Matt Ryan continues to develop, we’ll be seeing him in more playoff games in the near future. They have a solid offensive core in Ryan, Turner and Roddy White, a great young coach in Mike Smith, and a couple of young, emerging defensive players like middle linebacker Curtis Lofton, Jonathan Babineaux and Chris Houston (if he can ever put it all together). In the offseason, GM Thomas Dimitroff will hopefully focus on the defensive side of the ball (they lack major depth at corner, could use a playmaker at safety and might need two new outside linebackers) and get Ryan a big receiving target at tight end.

It was a great season for the Falcons and they truly have something great brewing in Atlanta. It was just a bad ending to such a fun ride.

To read the Cardinals’ recap, click here.

NFL Playoff Preview: Wild Card Weekend

What a bizarre season this has been. Two teams that many pundits figured would meet in the Super Bowl – the Cowboys and Patriots – didn’t even make the playoffs. While two teams expected to dwell the cellars of their respective divisions for another season – the Dolphins and Falcons – will be playing in round one of the postseason, which kicks off this weekend.

Below is a complete playoff preview for the four Wild Card games this weekend. In each game preview you’ll find a matchup breakdown, a player to keep an eye on, odds, and a predicted score. (What’s a game preview without a prediction?)

Rather amazingly, all four home teams are underdogs this weekend.

Matt RyanAtlanta Falcons (11-5) at Arizona Cardinals (9-7)
Saturday, January 3, 4:30 PM FOX
Opening Odds: Falcons –2
Over/Under: 51
Game Outlook:
Outside of having to face Kurt Warner and a Cardinals’ offense that averages over 290 passing yards a game, this is a great matchup for the Falcons. Arizona has had issues stopping the run over the past couple weeks and before Edgerrin James cracked 100 yards Sunday against the Seahawks, no Cardinal rusher hit the 100-yard mark in the previous seven games. Offensively, that means Atlanta can do what it does best – put the game in the hands of Michael Turner. “The Burner” is coming off a 208-yard rushing performance in Week 17 and hasn’t shown signs of wearing down despite this being the first season that he’s had to carry the full rushing load. Look for the Falcons to try to wear down Arizona’s front seven throughout the game and keep the Cards’ explosive offense on the sidelines. Once the Cardinal safeties start to creep up to stop Turner, Atlanta offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey can start taking shots down the field with rookie quarterback Matt Ryan. Defensively, the Falcons will have to keep their safeties back in coverage and rely on their front seven to stop the Cardinals’ run game because corners Chris Houston and Dominique Foxworth can’t contain Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald in one on one coverage. Although Boldin has missed the final two games with a shoulder injury, he’s expected to play, which is obviously huge for Warner and the passing game. But if they can’t run the ball they’ll be to one-dimensional and the Falcons will be able to sit back in coverage.
X-Factor: John Abraham, Falcons DE
Abraham has been an absolute beast this season and if the Falcons can build a decent lead with their running game, it will allow Abraham to pin his ears back and head straight for the quarterback. Atlanta has done a nice job rotating their defensive linemen all season to keep them fresh and if Abraham can get pressure on Warner, he’s bound to make mistakes and turn the ball over.
Prediction: Falcons 30, Cardinals 27.
Atlanta’s secondary is a concern (especially with safety Lawyer Milloy nursing a back injury), but the Vikings exposed the Cardinals two weeks ago and the Falcons will use the same blueprint.


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